The Nihonshu-do: Fuhgedaboudit

The Nihonshu-do: Fuhgedaboudit
…unless you are brewing

Recently, I received correspondence requesting me to gather the nihonshu-do for a handful of sake that I help represent. The company requesting this information sought it, presumably, to allow their sales staff differentiate themselves from their competition, as they are in a country just starting to get into sake,  perhaps to make it seem easier for the customers to select products to carry.

Most readers surely recall that the nihonshu-do, or SMV as it is sometimes called outside of Japan, is a number that is supposed to indicate sweetness or dryness in a sake. It generally runs from -3 to +10, and “higher is dryer.” However, in reality, the number is almost useless except in its extreme manifestations, since a handful of things like acidity, temperature, perception, aromas, water, glassware, and certainly accompanying food all add about 20 percent error each. That last sentence alone could potentially yield 140 percent error in one sip. Hence the “almost useless” wording.

The 2013 Sake Professional Course in New York will be held May 8 ~ 10, 2013. Learn more and make a reservation here:
But they wanted the numbers nonetheless. Note, many brewers put this number on the bottle (which is part of the problem, actually, as they entice consumers to pay attention to it), but others do not. So I dutifully contacted all the brewers and asked them for the nihonshu-do of the relevant products. All swiftly complied and sent me the data – save one.

That “one” was dreadfully slow in getting back to me. Not that I was surprised; I more or less had expected that based on past dealings with them. In the sake world, I have learned, the speed of response from a kura is proportional to the length of their history. Backing gingerly away from the brink of that diversion, when his response did come, it was in the form of a refusal to comply. And it came with accentuated with sharp wording.

In short, he tore me a new… well, let’s just say I was instructed as to the nature of my misperceptions (a recurring theme with me).

“John, we do not make that information public. You should know that. It is irrelevant to the nature and quality of a sake, and serves only to confuse folks. And that is not just us; the industry has been moving away from this for years now. You are not helping things by promoting this at this stage…”

Yes, I responded politely, I did realize that, and I always do my best to make it clear the nihonshu-do is not worth much attention, but the customer wanted it, and right or wrong, refusing to cooperate would mean that your sake might not be available there, so that like many things in life, a compromise is at least worth considering.

This thought was scoffed at, and the scathing reprimand continued for another unbearable minute or so. Of course, he was right. And it seems the only way to support that correctness is to convey that to consumers themselves as often as needed.

So here goes: Except in its extreme manifestations, the nihonshu-do is almost meaningless in terms of telling us what a sake will taste like, i.e. sweet or dry. In fact, very seriously, it was never intended for consumers’ use.

The nihonshu-do is the specific gravity, i.e. the density of the stuff compared to that of pure water. And during the brewing process, as that changes, it tells brewers how much sugar has been converted to alcohol. As the density of the fermenting mash decreases, the nihonshu-do  number indicates decreasing sugar (which adds to density) and increasing alcohol (which reduces density). And even that is a borderline-gross simplification. The final number, i.e. the nihonshu-do of a completed sake, is an aimed-for number that is part of the recipe, so to speak. But it is one of a gazillion factors, and not overly indicative of one single aspect of the flavor profile.

So, again, the nihonshu-do was never intended for consideration on the part of consumers. Am I saying to totally ignore it? Nah. Let’s not go that far. I wouldn’t go out of my way to prevent it from entering my sphere of consciousness! But I am saying don’t worry about it. And I am for sure saying don’t make a big deal out of it.

The point here is not to bad-mouth the nihonshu-do, or those that choose to pay attention to it. Rather, the true gist really is to encourage people to trust their own palates and experiences with sake more than anything else. That’s what it’s all about.

The 2013 Sake Professional Course in New York will be held May 8 ~ 10, 2013. Learn more and make a reservation here:

Junmai Ginjo does not really exist, they told me.

While visiting an old, very prestigious brewer, I was looking at their lineup. There was no junmai amongst their ginjo offerings. While they had their share of junmai-shu itself, once you got into their ginjo world, there was only non-junmai ginjo products.

I inquired as to why this might be, since it was clearly not just a coincidence. I actually sorta knew, but wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. And since no reason was being openly offered, I dared to ask.

I promptly got torn a new… well, let’s just say I was instructed as to the nature of my misperceptions.

By the way, Ginjo, in this usage refers to all types of ginjo, i.e. including daiginjo manifestations (basically, ginjo to dai for, so to speak!). And non-junmai here refers to types of sake to which a li’l bit of pure ethyl alcohol (most often distilled from sugar cane) has been added after fermentation, not for economical reasons, but for sound technical reasons. These include, but are not limited to, drawing out more flavors and aromas, and improved shelf life.

Back to their retooling of my perceptions, I was told: “There is no such thing as junmai-ginjo. Not here anyway. Never has been. And those that make it do not really understand what ginjo is all about. Nor do we care what the Ministry of Taxation says on the issue; their priorities are different than ours.” They expounded a bit, but the point was well taken.

And that point is that super premium sake like ginjo and its to-die-for manifestation daiginjo were developed with the addition of alcohol as an integrated and necessary step. The whole “junmai” version came later, and this particular brewer’s point is that the whole hullabaloo about junmai being more pure came later, and is actually not so traditional, as far as the brewing industry itself is concerned. And who’s to argue with them?

Certainly not I.

The 2013 Sake Professional Course in New York will be held May 8 ~ 10, 2013. Learn more and make a reservation here:

I am definitely not anti junmai at all. Far from it; very far from it. Nor do I question the

A traditional white-walled sake brewery, or "sakagura"

Traditional Sakagura (sake brewery)

validity of junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. I’m just sayin’…you know. I’m just sayin’ that non-junmai types – those made with a bit of pure, distilled alcohol added during the process – are not only valid, not only worthy of our support, but as far as ginjo is concerned, one could say that they are even more traditional. Or at least hold some brewers.

I dunno… I guess it seems to me that, in the sake brewing process, yeast makes alcohol. And some brewers, for some sake, will then add alcohol. It does not fortify the product, as just a little bit is added, and more water is added later to bring the alcohol content back down to “normal” levels. And what is added is pure ethyl alcohol. It’s the same stuff that is already in there. They just add a bit to temporarily (remember that!) raise the overall alcohol content for technical reasons. Just because it was made outside of the process and brought in does not make it unsavory. And no matter what some folks insist, no one can really tell the difference, at least not in premium sake (remember that too!).

So, I am, if anything, anti-anti-junmai, and double negatives notwithstanding, that almost means pro-added-alcohol.

Why? Because very often it makes the sake better – better flavor, better aromas, better shelf life, and very often, a better value. What’s to diss?

All I am saying is give non-junmai a chance; especially in the realm of ginjo.

The 2013 Sake Professional Course in New York will be held May 8 ~ 10, 2013. Learn more and make a reservation here:

Sake Rice Grades

Rice is not, as most readers know, simply rice. Good sake is made from proper sake rice, and cheaper sake is made from much less expensive rice. In fact, most run of the mill average sake is made with rice bought from the local agricultural co-op, and often the purchaser knows nothing about it other than it came from within that prefecture.

Among the 100 or so types (a few are added and subtracted each year) of officially designated sakamai, or sake rice, there are many differences that make each type more suited or less suited to sake brewing: size of the grains, starch content and location within the grain (if it is not centered, it cannot be milled properly!), and physical hardness are but a few of those considerations.

And even within one sakamai type, there are greater and lesser manifestations. Let’s look at some of these differences, as well as how they are measured and conveyed.

When the rice arrives at the sake brewery, it comes as genmai (unmilled, brown rice) in 30 kilogram brown paper bags.

Stamped on each bag will be the name of the strain of rice, its prefecture of origin, and the inspected grade, which indicates which of the five classes of rice for which it passed inspection. The five grades are Tokujo (the best), Tokuto (the 2nd best), Itto, Nitto and Santo, in descending order. (The bag on the right shows Tokujo grade Yamada Nishiki rice, by the way, from a Special A designated field in Hyogo; this is as good as it gets!)

The differences between the various grades are characterized by things like size. And while the size of grains is indeed important, other things matter too, such as a lack of broken grains, and a lack of aomai, or grains that have not ripened and remain green. Size, by the way, is measured by the weight of 1000 grains.

Note, that just a bag of rice says tokujo does not mean that every grain in that bag is of tokujo class. There will always be a certain amount of smaller grains, cracked grains, and un-ripened grains as well. This is evidence of the fact that, within any one field, there will be greater and lesser grains, so to speak.

There is much, much more to the rice world than most of us are aware of, and the methods of quality control and selection for sake rice can be interesting.